Malaysian statesman Mahathir Mohamad’s new political party Pejuang positions itself as a fighter for Malay rights and an enemy of kleptocracy, not against Singapore, said Singaporean playwright Alfian Sa’at.

Responding to Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s statement on the Malaysian politician’s poem yesterday, Mr Alfian said that the word ‘pejuangis often employed in the phrase ‘pejuang bangsa’, which means ‘nation’s fighter’ or ‘patriot‘.

In his poem, published on his personal blog Che Det yesterday, Dr Mahathir largely criticised Bersatu, the party he co-founded and was recently ousted from.

He wrote that the party that was originally established to save Malaysia from kleptocracy and corruption has been ‘hijacked’ to “save our enemies” for the love of power and money.

He added that Pejuang was borne out of “awareness” of the destructive effects of corruption on Malays.

“It is clear from the poem that Mahathir positions PEJUANG as fighting for Malay rights. Fighting against corruption and kleptocracy. Not against Singapore. What really is the point of riling up Singaporeans in this way?” Mr Alfian questioned.

“And that thing again — putting words together to suggest something more nefarious than it is,” he added.

Mr Shanmugam — in his Facebook post yesterday evening — quoted two lines from Dr Mahathir’s poem, which referred to an unspecified neighbouring country.

The minister wrote:

Two lines in the poem are interesting:
“Lihat Melayu negara jiran.
Melayu lagikah negara mereka?”

“Look at the Malays of the neighbouring country.
Is their country still Malay?”

Mr Shanmugam subsequently questioned which country Dr Mahathir was making a reference to in the poem.

Likely referencing Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s citation of his poem in the previous Parliament term, Mr Alfian — in a Facebook post late Wednesday night — wrote: “I am always on alert when politicians start quoting extracts from a poem, so I looked at the original work.”

The playwright said that while Dr Mahathir had undoubtedly referred to Singapore in the two quoted lines, it is evident that what was being referred to is the history of “Singapore being sold to the East India Company”.

“There is a popular narrative that Sultan Hussein and the Temenggong had ‘sold’ Singapore to Raffles and the East India Company because they were greedy,” he observed, in reference to the last Sultan of the Johore-Riau-Lingga empire and Temenggong Abdul Rahman of Singapore.

Temenggong traditionally refers to the third-highest official after the Sultan or King in the old Johor empire.

Mr Alfian narrated that in exchange for permission to the British to set up a factory in Singapore, “the Sultan was offered 5000 and the Temenggong 3000 Spanish dollars yearly” in the Treaty of Singapore signed in 1819.

“What has not often been highlighted is the fact that the treaty also recognised Sultan Hussein as the Sultan of Johor-Riau, over his rival claimant Tengku Abdul Rahman, who was backed by the Dutch. So the signing of the treaty was also a case of political manoeuvring and an attempt to consolidate his position, and was not just motivated by a taste for Spanish dollars,” he added.

The 1819 treaty, Mr Alfian continued, “retained the jurisdiction of the Sultan and Temenggong over the island”, as both still “received gifts from visiting ships, collected a portion of customs duties, etc.”.

Singapore and the surrounding islands were later “ceded” to the British East India Company (EIC) in 1824 via The Treaty of Friendship and Alliance.

“By that time, [Stamford] Raffles had managed to chip away at the Sultan’s power, and had strangled all his sources of revenue, such that the Sultan only depended on the British for his income.

“The Sultan was then told that he was being overpaid, and thus owed a debt to the British. If he were to sign a new treaty, the debts would be forgiven. The Sultan resisted for three months, but eventually capitulated and signed. The treaty was called ‘The Treaty of Friendship and Alliance’, a name which hid the fact that it was signed under duress and desperation,” said Mr Alfian.

Consequently, he critiqued Dr Mahathir’s purported use of Sultan Hussein “as an example of Malays being seduced by money”.

Mr Alfian also opined that it is unfair for Mr Shanmugam to extract two lines from Dr Mahathir’s poem “to suggest that Mahathir thinks that Singapore’s Malay character is lost, probably due to the minority status of the Malays”.

“Singapore stopped being a Malay country in 1824, when its sovereignty under the Malay Johor-Riau-Lingga empire was transferred to the EIC. This has nothing to do with a Chinese majority and everything to do with colonialism.

“One gets an F for literature, and another gets an F for history,” wrote Mr Alfian, the former possibly referring to the past saga with Minister Ong.

Minister Ong Ye Kung did not quote line from poem in full, line in poem suggest fear of a “patriotic love” and the need to protect oneself “from loving something too much”: Playwright Alfian Sa’at

In delivering his speech on the cancellation of the Yale-NUS programme and guiding principles for educational institutions in Singapore last October, Mr Ong quoted part of Alfian’s poem “Singapore You Are Not My Country”, which was written over two decades ago in 1998, to give Parliament “a flavour of his thinking”.

Quoting Mr Alfian’s poem, Mr Ong read:

“Singapore, I assert you are not a country at all,
Do not raise your voice against me, I am not afraid of your anthem”

Later part of the poem says:

“…how can you call yourself a country,
you terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums
ten minutes’ drive from the MRT?”

“This is a poem, and we might concede some artistic licence. But Mr Alfian Sa’at continues this attitude consistently in his activism,” Mr Ong alleged.

Earlier, Mr Alfian highlighted that Mr Ong did not quote the poem in full, in which it originally appears as seen below:

Do not raise your voice against me,
I am not afraid of your anthem
although the lyrics are still bleeding from
the bark of my sapless heart.

He elaborated that the context in which the line ”I am not afraid of your anthem” appears “makes clear that I have grown up with the anthem as a Singaporean, that it bleeds from my heart, and that in spite of saying ‘I am not afraid of your anthem’ (bravado) I am actually afraid of hearing it and having it rouse patriotic feelings in me”.

“And I am afraid of this patriotic love because it is so involuntarily, it comes from a primordial and irresistible place from deep inside.

“I am afraid of these volcanic feelings because I want to protect myself from loving something too much,” Mr Alfian said, alluding to his love for Singapore.

“Just stopping on the word ‘anthem’ might suggest that I am somehow rejecting symbols of the state,” he added.

Commenting on another quoted line, in which Mr Alfian draws an image of the “terrible hallucination of highways and cranes and condominiums / ten minutes’ drive from the MRT” in Singapore, Alfian said that it is “a fair critique of relentless development and destruction of built heritage that has made many Singaporeans feel unmoored from their surroundings”.

“I believe a country needs to be more than the sum of its construction projects and prime real estate,” he added.

In response to Mr Ong’s claim that the playwright is persistent in carrying “this attitude consistently in his activism”, Mr Alfian said that he is “not exactly sure what he means”.

“First of all, I’m not an activist. I consider myself primarily a writer and a playwright.

“And secondly, the activists I know are motivated by love. Not hatred. And that love—for social justice, for the marginalised, for the poor, for the weak—is what has often led them to do things often at great personal cost.

“Whether it be less time spent with their family, or sacrificing a career in a better-paying job, or even the risk of being blacklisted by authorities,” he said.

Alfian Sa’at previously issued detailed refutation of “pro-Malaysia activist” narrative, drew on his previous criticisms of Mahathir Mohamad and “Bumiputera” policies

In June, Mr Alfian issued a detailed refutation of the “pro-Malaysia activist” narrative painted against him.

Among the points made by Mr Alfian include his past criticism in 2014 on how the Bumiputera policy “has been hijacked and corrupted” by “UMNOputras” through “cronyism, nepotism and corruption”.

“Of all the accusations in that post, this one is the most obviously defamatory. I had to comb through all my posts to see what I had written about ‘Bumiputera policies’. And there’s not a single post that mentions endorsement of the policy, nor my wish for it to be implemented in Singapore. If anything, there is awareness of how it has been hijacked and corrupted,” he wrote.

While Malaysia’s Federal Constitution does not explicitly include the word “Bumiputera”, Article 153 provides for the role of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong — the Head of State — as the protector of the “special position” of Malays and the native people of Sabah and Sarawak.

The constitutional provision relates to what is popularly known as “quotas” or affirmative action for Malays and East Malaysian native people in terms of applying and obtaining scholarships and education, positions in the civil service, and permits or licences for trade or business activities, to name a few.

Article 153, however, does not mention the terms “rights” or “special privileges”. The Article also contains certain restrictions as a means to safeguard the rights of Malaysians who do not fall under the “Bumiputera” category.

Contrary to the assertion that he adulates Dr Mahathir, who is known for his strongman politics, Mr Alfian highlighted several instances in which he had criticised Dr Mahathir for some of the latter’s publically espoused views.

The playwright noted in 2014 that Dr Mahathir has, for example, made “antisemitic remarks about Jewish global conspiracies” while simultaneously “quietly accepting Western capital investment towards his country’s economic development”.

A year earlier, Mr Alfian rejected the undertones of Malay supremacism in Dr Mahathir’s remark on the Chinese rejecting the ‘Malay hand of friendship’.

“I’m upset to hear that Dr Mahathir stated that the Chinese have rejected the ‘Malay hand of friendship’. Don’t say that people have rejected your ‘hand of friendship’ when you have no idea what friendship even means. Friendship doesn’t mean, ‘we can get along, as long as you accept my superiority’,” wrote Mr Alfian.

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